Interview: Lilah Sturges Talks Dune
Have you had a chance to back the Kickstarter campaign for Dune: The Official Movie Graphic Novel? The official novel of Legendary’s critically acclaimed motion picture, Dune, is adapted by the Prism Award-winning writer Lilah Sturges, with art by Drew Johnson and colors by digital painter Zid, and tells the mythic and emotionally charged hero’s journey of Paul Atreides, who must travel to the most dangerous planet in the universe to save his family and his people.
Prism got the chance to interview Sturges over Zoom, and we asked all about the process of adapting an adaption of Frank Herbert’s Dune, working with comic legend Bill Sienkiewicz, who created the original Dune comic for Marvel in 1984, and the importance of trans representation in media.
Rebecca Kaplan: With Dune, what is the process of adapting an adaption?
Lilah Sturges: That’s a very good question. The important thing to know about me is that I’ve been a raving Dune fan since I was 12 years old, since Margot Baxter handed me a copy of Dune on the school bus and said, “You have to read this.” I trusted Margot Baxter because she was the smartest kid in the 7th grade, so I was like, “Ok, I’ll read it,” and I was completely hooked. I went to the library and checked out all the others. I don’t think all of the Frank Herbert books had been written by that point, but at some point, I managed to read all of them. I was hoping that Frank Herbert would get to finish them, but of course, he died before he could, and his son has since finished the series. But anyway, the point is: I was crazy about the world of Dune and the stories from a very early age, and I reread the books every five or six years after enough time has passed that I don’t remember exactly what happens.
When Legendary Comics was doing the Dune stuff, I was talking to my editor at the time, Jann Jones, because I did another book from them called The Science of Ghosts, which comes out next year, and she mentioned that they were doing a Dune adaptation, and I said, “It’s mine. I’m doing this. No one else can do this. I’m uniquely qualified among any other human being in the world to write this adaptation. At the time, she was like, “Okay, okay, I’ll see what I can do.” So insisting on something often works in a writing career, which I would have not have believed.
When I got the script, I was very nervous when opening the document because my first thought was, “Well, what if they screwed it up? What if their interpretation of Dune was something that I did not agree with?” Because then, I would have had to pass. I’d have to say, “No, I can’t sign on to this.” But as I read it, I thought this is brilliant actually. They did an incredible job of adapting the story for the screen, so I was really, really jazzed to write it. So I told Legendary, “Okay, let’s write this. I need about 250 pages,” and they told me, “You have 100.” Of course, I asked for more. I wheedled and whined and begged, and got an extra 10 or 15 pages. And I was like, okayyyyy, I can do this, I think.
For me, the difficult part was that I am so in love with the world that I wanted to include all this background, all this history, and just all of this stuff from the book, and they were like, “You can’t do that.” I guess something in the licensing agreement means that you can only use the stuff that they agreed to let them use, and it’s very specific. It was really painful for me because I wanted to include (and show-off) all of this stuff from the book. I snuck some stuff in there, but I had to really limit the details. I snuck in some Chakobsa dialogue. I snuck in references to things that are not in the film. I wanted to give readers who were fans of the book something.
But it turned out to be not that difficult to write for two reason: first, because I was so intimately familiar with the story and the characters and their voices, it was not difficult at all to produce the final script; and second, because I had just started taking Adderall after being diagnosed with ADHD, I felt like I could do anything and wrote the script very quickly. I won’t say how quickly I wrote it though because people might think, “Well, she wrote it that fast, it can’t be that good.” I’ll just say, I wrote it quickly. I got beyond hyperfocus. I worked on it night and day for a certain amount of time.
But at some point in the process, it was like, this is weird. I am doing an adaptation of an adaptation. And that’s kind of very meta and strange. But I’d already done it once before when Dave Justice and I wrote the adaptation of the Fables video game, so I already have some experience doing weird, multi-adaptation, nested, recursion stuff.
Kaplan: What’s it like working with another comic book legend Bill Sienkiewicz on this project, especially since he worked on the original Dune?
Sturges: Yes, he did. Bill Sienkiewicz is a legend. He’s someone that I’ve been in love with for a very long time. There is an early book of his called Stray Toasters that I absolutely loved. He also did this book with Alan Moore called Big Numbers, even though only two issues of it were ever published, to me, it’s still one of the most influential comic books ever created. I urge anyone who has not seen it to find it because it’s astonishing. So anyway, the idea of having a Bill Sienkiewicz cover was like the best thing ever. I was just waiting for the announcement so I could go around telling people, “My book has a cover by Bill Sienkiewicz. No big deal.”
Kaplan: Nobody can keep Dune out of their mouth right now. What’s it like working on such a hot property that is also somehow unrelated to the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
Sturges: It was so exciting. I got to read the script months before anyone got to see the movie, and I was bursting at the seems to tell everyone that I knew that it was good. There was so much speculation about if the film was going to be any good and how they were going to do it, and I just wanted to go on the internet and scream, “IT’S SO GOOD. IT’S SO GOOD.” I knew if they filmed anything like the script that I read, it was going to be fantastic, and of course, the movie is phenomenal, I think. I’ve seen it several times now. But mostly, to answer your question, the feeling that I have is how desperately I wanted to talk about it before it was announced.
Kaplan: What’s your “mindkiller”?
Sturges: It’s hard to say anything other than fear. But for me, I think the mindkiller is uncertainty. I don’t like when I don’t know what’s going to happen, and it drives me up the wall. I’d almost rather be afraid than uncertain.
Kaplan: What is the relationship between Sigmund Freud and Dune?
Sturges: I think it’s pretty clear that Frank Herbert inserted some oedipal stuff into Dune. The relationship between Paul and his mother is more like the relationship between Hamlet and his mother where there is some boundary crossing there. Is he her son? Her husband? I think Frank Herbert was probably aware of that when he wrote the book.
Kaplan: Why is this science fiction story for the modern ages?
Sturges: We currently live in a world that is controlled by large forces that we are afraid of and that we do not entirely understand. In Dune, there are these enormous forces at work: there are these great houses; there’s the empire; there’s Landsraad; there’s CHOAM; and there’s the Bene Gesserit; and you can’t know what their motivations are all the time. I think we live in a world where we’ve got tech giants; we’ve got billionaires; and we’ve got corrupt governments. And I think that we as people feel subjected to all of that, and we can’t always control it. So it’s nice to see the Fremen out there fighting back, and it’s nice to see that Paul Atreides, who is our main character and the person through whom we are seeing the action, is weary of all of those systems. However, he also understands them and knows how to deal with them. I think you’ll see that in the second film, if it’s anything like the book, Paul standing up to those systems and completely overwhelming them. So I think that’s why it resonates so much right now. Because we are like Paul in the sense that we are trying to navigate an dangerous world that is either indifferent to us or aligned against us.
Kaplan: What lessons can we take from that?
Sturges: I think the primary lesson of the first Dune movie, the one that we’ve all seen, is that in order to master your environment, you have to master yourself first. I think that’s always true. You have to become the person that you can become, and you have to step out of the shadows of the people you’ve modeled yourself after. We talk about how often our heroes disappoint us, especially in this age where “me too” happens, where people rediscover antisemitic tweets, and where people learn who knows what else, so we have to kill our heroes again and again and again. I think it’s useful to see that killing your heroes is actually a good thing. Not literally, but letting go of some of that idol worship is crucial to moving forward. I think we need to be skeptical of these big systems that affect our lives so deeply.
Kaplan: My wife asked you this question at SDCC 2019, in what seems like another lifetime. How has representation helped you personally? Or has it?
Sturges: Trans representation has changed so much in the past few years. I’m fortunate enough to have been a small part of that. I have been able to add some trans visibility and representation into the conversation – at least in comics. I think the big sea change you’re seeing right now is that more and more trans creators are being allowed to tell their stories. Whereas, even just a few years ago, we were starting to see some trans characters in fiction but mostly they were being written by cisgender people. It’s so important to have trans voices writing these characters. Any marginalized group needs to have people within that group telling those stories because the stories are complicated, the stories are widely diverse, and deeply personal.
When I wrote Girl Haven, which is my middle grade book about a trans person coming to understand her identity, I made sure to put in the forward that this is just one trans experience, and it’s not every trans experience, and it shouldn’t be understood as that. I think it opens the door for us to tell so many incredible trans stories because every trans person has a different way of being in the world, and has a different origin story. My goal always is that there will be a young person out there who is going to read that book and be like, “Wow! That’s like me. I see myself in this, and now that gives me a light on my path where before it was dark.” That’s the goal of a lot of the things that I write these days. To me, the goal of the representation is to give people guide posts along the way on their own journey because there is nothing that teaches you how to be transgender in the world, and the world keeps changing so as it changes we need more stories. There’s no limit to the number of stories that can be told.
Kaplan: For a few years, you’ve been running a social media project called “trans pizza.” Can you tell us about why you started to do this? What type of reactions have received from the campaign?
Sturges: It started as a joke. There was a meme among trans people that basically said, “If you want to really help a trans person, buy them a pizza.” So I thought it would be funny to go on Twitter, and say, “Hey, I’m going to buy a trans person a pizza, so just reply here. I’ll pick someone among the replies, and I’ll send them $20 for pizza.” And so, it was fun and everyone had a good time, and someone got a pizza. So a few weeks later, I did it again, and I think it would have ended there except I got a DM from someone who asked if they sent $20, if I’d make it two pizzas. I thought this was interesting, so that time I gave two pizzas away. So the next time I did it, I was like, “If anyone else wants to donate money to this, we could give away three pizzas.” I think that time we gave away six pizzas. Then, it got to the point where one day there were 125 pizzas, and I was like, “Well, I can’t do this. I have to do something different.” I started giving away a few pizzas at a time, and people could donate, and I would take money from that fund and give it out.
I did trans pizza for 18 months, and it got some attention. I never really publicized it or anything because I didn’t want the attention, and didn’t want it to be about me. But the most exciting thing is that the Austin Chronicle, which is the alternative weekly here, gave me a special reader’s choice award that year, which was really, really cool. Then, there was a really nice writeup in a newspaper where the writer went and contacted people who had won trans pizza and asked them what it meant to them, and I was sobbing because it was so beautiful to have touched a bunch of people.
However, it’s sort of been dormant during the panino because it was getting overwhelming along with all the pressure from the pandemic. So I retooled it a bit, and it will be coming back. I’m doing it in a much more efficient way, and I’m excited about it. There will be no end to the trans pizza, thank you very much.
Kaplan: How was the experience of being included in the Marvel Pride issue?
Sturges: That was very exciting. Marvel just reached out to me blind, and said, “Hey, would you be interested in doing a story for this?” First of all, I thought it was very nice to be thought of. I wanted to do a story with a trans character, and it just so happens that Crystal Frasier and Al Ewing had introduced Dr. Charlene McGowan, who is a trans woman and a cool one. It just so happened that no one had picked her to write yet, so I came up with this fun, cute story about her and Elektra, and it all pieced together very well. I was super proud of it and happy that it ended with a joke. Also, that other trans people enjoyed the joke. It was kind of funny, because the joke is that trans people insist that we don’t all know each other, but then we actually kind of do all know each other, which was proved by the fact that someone who I don’t know tweeted the joke from the issue, and a bunch of people were like, “Oh, I know her. She’s my mutual friend on Twitter.”
I also wanted to make a public statement that saying, “Welcome to womanhood,” is actually not as nice of a thing to say to a trans woman as you might think.
Kaplan: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Sturges: I have a book coming out next year. It’s called The Science of Ghosts, and it’s a graphic novel about a trans woman who is also a forensic parapsychologist. She has a Ph.D., and she studies ghost behavior. She uses her understanding of those behaviors to solve crimes. It’s a horror, mystery, fantasy, very gay book, and I’m looking forward to it coming out finally. The art is by Alitha Martinez and El Garing.
You have until tomorrow, Wednesday, November 24 2021 at 12:14 PM PST to back the Dune: The Official Movie Graphic Novel Kickstarter campaign.